Zelophehad’s Daughters

Parenthood and the Imago Dei

Posted by Lynnette

In honor of having made it through another year of Mother’s Day and Father’s Day celebrations (and/or firestorms), I’d like to consider some issues related to parenthood, and how we talk about it in the Church. Though I admittedly do have my qualms about some of the language related to gender, I have to say that the LDS emphasis on the importance of parenting is something I actually quite appreciate, and generally see as positive. At the same time, as a single adult member of the Church, I’m all too aware of how this emphasis can leave a large segment of the community feeling somewhat like second-class citizens. So I find myself coming back to the question, is there a way to talk about the importance of parenthood that doesn’t marginalize the non-parents? Or is that simply one of the costs of keeping the role of parent as central as we want it to be? I honestly don’t know the answer to that one.

I would, however, like to explore some of the underlying theology here. One possibly related question has to do with a classical theological problem: what exactly is the imago Dei, the image of God in human beings? In other words, what is it about us that makes us at least potentially like God? In the history of Christian theology, some have argued for rationality, that the human capacity for reason is what most closely reflects the divine. A popular recent approach, related to a resurgence of work on the Trinity, argues that the imago should be understood in terms of relationality; the triune God is constitutively relational, one who exists from the beginning not as autonomous but in relation with others, and human beings can therefore likewise only be understood in the context of our relationships.

In the context of LDS thought, when we think of the imago Dei we are perhaps likely to think of parenthood, as our teachings suggest that bearing and raising children may be the single activity in which we humans can engage that most brings out our divine potential. If God’s work and glory is to raise us, his children, then clearly parenting is a divine calling, not only in the sense of being divinely sanctioned, but also in the sense that is in fact the kind of work that God himself does. However, particularly given the close link between human and divine in LDS theology, I think it would be a mistake to take too narrow a view of the imago, to limit it to parenthood alone. Given our teachings about eternal progression, we might also see it in the human ability to learn, to give just one example. Presumably it also includes such things as our capacity to develop faith, hope, and charity. (It is interesting to note that, the Da Vinci Code notwithstanding, we don’t have much evidence that parenthood was part of Jesus’ mortal mission but I have yet to hear anyone make the case that this makes him a less than adequate image of the divine.)

This means that while I think we may have good reason to classify parenthood as the most important activity in which humans can engage in this life, a life which we understand as giving us opportunities and experiences which allow us to further develop our divine potential, this does not necessitate making parenthood the definitive purpose of mortality, the one toward which everything else should be oriented. While I don’t mind talks about the importance of parenthood, I have to admit that I start feeling prickly when I hear the suggestion that only those who are parents have learned the really important and valuable lessons of mortality. Sometimes parenthood gets talked about in a way which implies that some people are doing something meaningful now, in this life, while others are merely at best preparing to do something meaningful in the eternities, and (needless to say) I am not particularly fond of such a paradigm.

I’m wondering whether there might be some parallels here to the problem of religious pluralism. Even with our exclusive claims about the salvific necessity of LDS ordinances, I do not think we have any theological reason to believe that those outside of the LDS church are not learning and experiencing things which give them a chance to develop their divine potential. In fact, as I’ve posted before, I’m far from convinced that all people are called by God to join the LDS church in this life. Could something similar be true when it comes to questions related to marriage and parenting? I don’t think we have to back off from our teachings about the eternal significance of raising families to note that those things aren’t essential for following God and living a meaningful life, anymore than we have to let go of our claim to some kind of exclusivity in our religion in order to acknowledge the diverse ways that God works in the world and in the lives of individuals from a variety of faiths.

Our current strategy for softening the potential sting of statements about the divinity of motherhood in particular seems to be to re-define the term as one which encompasses all charitable relationships. But I wonder, if we emphasized that all women are children of God with the potential to be like him in a wide variety of ways, and it’s the development of our divine potential in all its many facets which is the purpose of mortality (and not just parenthood specifically), would it be necessary to make the rather odd claim that all women are mothers? Rather than re-defining the term “motherhood” into near meaninglessness, I think it could be worthwhile to instead make use of a broader conception of the imago Dei: one which centrally includes parenthood but nonetheless isn’t limited to it, and one which reminds us of the many ways in which we all are called to a life of Christian discipleship.

8 Responses to “Parenthood and the Imago Dei

  1. 1.

    I’m drawn to the argument for more inclusiveness rather than exclusiveness in regard to our divine potentials. As another person with no children, I bristle as well at claims that parenting is the only or best way one can fulfill one’s potential.

    Lynette, I have to ask . . .do you view God as male? You consistently referred to God as “him.” If parenthood is the divine model, but but divine parenthood is masculine parenthood, eternity looks pretty bleak to me. My guess about you is that you have a much more complex idea about who/what God is and don’t limit God to being a man, so I’m curious why you choose masculine language. I don’t mean this to be too tangential, but I think it relates back to the parenthood idea. Parenthood generally takes male and female, so I don’t know why our language about divine parentage in the church doesn’t more readily reflect that.

  2. 2.

    Lynnette,

    Have you seen this discussion? It asks some of the same questions you’re posing here.

    If you’ll tolerate some plagiarism, this is a statement I found insightful:

    The rule isn’t: “get married to be exalted.” The rule is: “do whatever will lead to the greatest growth and flourishing of life.” Marriage is just a means of furthering that ultimate goal. There are no “rules,” just the command to love as a means of growing in the way of happiness, so the “rule” is, if there is one, “act in a way consonant with the nature of happiness and that is therefore a fortiori consonant with the nature of God.”

    Stole it from Blake, in comment # 113.

  3. 3.

    “So I find myself coming back to the question, is there a way to talk about the importance of parenthood that doesn’t marginalize the non-parents?”

    That’s the million dollar question, isn’t it? I found one way to answer it a few years ago . . .

    I was sitting in RS scanning the bulletin waiting for the class to start. I noticed that the lesson title was something like “The Blessings of Celestial Marriage” and that the teacher was . . . a late-40s single woman. I cringed.

    She stood up, full of energy, and said (I’m paraphrasing, of course), “Today we are going to talk about how to get as close as possible to the ideal. You’ve probably noticed that I don’t reach the ideal. But guess what? Even if you have a temple marriage and ten perky, color-coordinated children, you don’t either.”

    And the entire lesson was focused on getting closer to the ideal.

    (FWIW, I don’t like the re-definition of motherhood to mean ‘all women.’ The last time this came up on a blog, someone asked how we’d react if we decided to honor all men on Veteran’s Day. Bingo.)

  4. 4.

    “is there a way to talk about the importance of parenthood that doesn’t marginalize the non-parents?”

    No.

  5. 5.

    I’m far from convinced that all people are called by God to join the LDS church in this life. Could something similar be true when it comes to questions related to marriage and parenting?

    For example the Catholic approach where priests are called to devote their lives to God in a way that does not include being a parent? I like Mark’s quote of Blake and Julie’s quote of her teacher as well: It’s not as though parents are getting to have all the experiences that are going to make them better either.

    “is there a way to talk about the importance of parenthood that doesn’t marginalize the non-parents?”

    No.

    Okay, how about this, then. Are there ways to talk about the importance of parenthood that marginalize non-parents less than other ways? To this, I think the answer is clearly “yes.” As Lynnette points out, if you say “being a parent is the only truly important thing people do in this life,” that’s a more marginalizing way, but on the other hand if you say “being a parent is a very important thing people do in this life” that’s a less marginalizing way.

    Now don’t I sound like the old Missionary Guide, with my more effective and less effective examples? :)

    Thanks for a thought-provoking post, Lynnette.

  6. 6.

    AmyB, thanks for the comment. That’s a really good point that if we’re understanding God only as a father, motherhood takes on a rather ambiguous status. As for why I use masculine language in talking about God–that’s a good question. I started thinking about it, and realized it was probably worth a whole post of its own. So I’ll have to come back to that one.

    Mark, thanks for the link. I have to say, skimming that discussion almost persuaded me to become a classical Trinitarian. ;) I’m not sure our version of the Trinity is any less confusing! I agree that framing what we’re doing in terms of seeking exaltation, and viewing marriage as one of those things, seems like a more inclusive approach. On the other hand, I’m not sure about marriage as a means to an end; I feel pretty strongly that relationships (of all kinds) should be ends in themselves. Hmm.

    Julie, I really like that approach. Thanks for the story.

    Ziff, thanks for stating more clearly what I was trying to ask. Even if you did have to start sounding like Missionary Guide to do it. :P

  7. 7.

    Lynnette,

    I agree that it would be nice if church leaders, particularly in General Conference, would suggest less exclusive methods to fulfill our divine potential than being parents. I think an effort is being made to be more inclusive. I usually dread going to the annual Relief Society broadcast because I almost always walk away deeply hurt becuase, according to the speakers, the only way for a woman to fufill her divine potential is to be a mother. Last September I was pleasantly surprised that the themes of many of the talks focused on the healing and strengthening power of feeling and knowing that God loves each of His daughters. This is a universal message to all women, not just those who are married or those who have children. While I appreciated the broader theme of that conference and while I appreciate the inclusivity of my ward and bishopric, a profound sense of inadequacy persists.

    I have made every effort to serve in my ward and stake (including volunteering in the nursery Eve!) so that I feel less excluded and a contributing member to the Kingdom yet the sense that my life is incomplete remains. I do not think even a completely revised church rhetoric of Imago Dei will make me feel at peace with my situation.

  8. 8.

    Hi, Fideline! I have to agree that to some extent, this is simply going to be a difficult position. Though like you, I’ve noticed and appreciated efforts to be more inclusive. This is kind of my best attempt at making theological sense out of my own situation in the context of LDS thought. But it can certainly be a challenging thing to navigate.

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